The World Ends With You is a carefully-crafted and beautifully written character study in the guise of a video game. Sure, I’ve played other games with character-driven stories that have complex depth and characterization that I adore (Final Fantasy IX’s Vivi – and really, most of the characters– are excellent), but there’s something about The World Ends With You’s exploration of Neku that I keep coming back to. Neku’s journey from being an apathetic loner who shuts people out the second they try to interact with him, to a caring and trusting individual who allows himself to be vulnerable around his friends is truly amazing.
Spoilers ahead for both The World Ends With You and its sequel, NEO The World Ends With You. Read at your own risk!
The best character arcs are those where the character becomes a very different person from who they started out as. In Neku’s case, he doesn’t care about or trust people. At all. The game doesn’t outright confirm why (it’s implied in the post-game chapter, Another Day, that it’s because of the death of a close friend), and it doesn’t need to, because one thing is certain: he won’t let anyone get close to him.
Symbolized by the headphones he wears, it’s a perfect visual cue to how Neku views the world and other people. It’s also an innocuous detail: plenty of people wear headphones, so it wouldn’t necessarily be seen as weird. But for Neku, it’s a deliberate way to lock people out, and it lets the player know exactly what he’s about before he even says anything.
Breaking Down the Walls and Learning to Trust
The World Ends With You spans three weeks, when Neku dies from mysterious circumstances and is forced to play the Reaper’s Game, a game designed to test the player’s morality and determine if they’re worthy of a second chance at life. From there, he’s forced to team up with different partners in Shiki, Joshua, and Beat, while learning the value of trust, friendship, and vulnerability.
With the way Neku is characterized at the beginning of the game, he is absolutely unworthy of having a second chance at life, and with good reason. Because we are constantly privy to his thoughts, we don’t have to guess or need to be told in clunky dialogue by other characters what he feels or thinks. Neku doesn’t care about anyone else except himself, and he isn’t afraid to think the worst of people around him. His inability to trust Shiki allows him to be easily tricked by Uzuki to try and erase her.
It’s a pretty dark turn, and when I first played this game, I was shocked by Neku’s willingness and selfishness to go along with Uzuki. When players say they couldn’t get through the game because they outright hated Neku in the beginning, I can understand it – to a certain degree, anyway. He’s not meant to be likable at all, and it illustrates just how much Neku needs to grow and change. It’s part of what makes his growth meaningful because he starts out in such a negative place and learns from his mistakes.
Change is a long and arduous progress, and it never happens overnight. Part of what makes Neku feel like a believable character is that his growth doesn’t happen all at once. It’s a slow burn as he starts opening up to Shiki while listening to her dreams and fears. He starts to take Mr. Hanekoma’s advice and try to open himself up to the world, even while Joshua tries to persuade him that they’ll never truly understand people. By learning to listen and open up, Neku is able to support and comfort Beat in a way that only he can during his lowest moments. He becomes friends with them, and he learns more about himself and what he wants out of his life, too.
The final day of Week 3 tests Neku’s resolve and growth to its limits. His former partner Joshua reveals that Neku was his proxy for his plans to destroy Shibuya. Seeing the city as a stagnant place where no one can understand or trust each other (traits embodied by Neku at the beginning of the game), Joshua proposes they settle the fate of Shibuya over a duel. If Joshua shoots, he wins and Shibuya is no more. But if Neku shoots, he wins and they regain their lives in Shibuya.
I remember this finale blowing me away the first time I played the game. Joshua’s nonchalant and apathetic attitude is a stark contrast to our hero. Neku’s shock and sorrow are palpable and I get choked up every time the duel cutscene plays out. In a situation where Neku has every right to be incredibly angry – and would be justified in shooting Joshua – he can’t bring himself to do it. Neku’s growth as an individual all culminates in this single moment. Despite his trust being broken, learning to be unguarded and valuing the friendships he’s made throughout the Reaper’s Game prevents him from being able to pull the trigger. His pain is relatable, and so well done.
Seeing Neku’s transformation from a selfish loner to a selfless friend inspires Joshua to spare Shibuya and earns Neku his second chance at life. The game ends with Neku waking up in the real world and ultimately reuniting with Beat, Rhyme, and Shiki in front of the Hachiko statue. Unable to fully forgive Joshua, he decides to trust him to take care of Shibuya instead and hopes he’ll join them as friends. I absolutely adore the game’s ending, especially the final image of Neku dropping his headphones on the ground. It perfectly punctuates his character arc and growth into someone no longer secluded and untrusting. It’s so good.
I’ve also got to give a shoutout to Neku’s English voice actor, Jesse David Corti. In the few voiced lines Neku has, Jesse brings range to the character and his ultimate transformation, and the best part is, he doesn’t change his performance very much. Neku is pretty soft-spoken from start to finish, but you can hear when he’s indifferent or genuinely cares about others through Jesse’s deliveries, and it’s great.
How NEO: The Worlds Ends With You Honors Its Predecessor
With an ending that beautiful, you can imagine how overjoyed – but concerned – I was when a sequel was teased through the -Solo Remix- port of The World Ends With You and all of its additional content. I should probably talk about A New Day, but unfortunately, I didn’t play it. I watched the cutscenes years ago and was initially frustrated when it was revealed that Neku is “killed” – again – and separated from his friends to play the Reaper’s Game again.
If A New Day didn’t get a follow-up, it would have ruined what I felt was a perfect ending to a standalone game by teasing a sequel that might never come (Golden Sun Dark Dawn, I’m looking at you). Luckily, NEO The World Ends With You was announced and provided much-needed closure to that plot point. In my wishlist for a sequel, I mentioned one of my fears about how the growth of characters from the first game risks being negated in a sequel if it’s handled poorly.
Fortunately, my fears were largely assuaged. Regarded as “the legendary Player,” Neku doesn’t appear until very late in the game, and when he does join the party, he acts as a mentor and voice of reason to the team (although I do miss his snark from the first game, alas). Still though, it’s a detail I really appreciate: despite the three-year time jump, Neku has continued to mature and has fully adapted to his role as a supportive ally and friend, and certainly doesn’t let the title of the “legendary” Player go to his head. It’s fully believable and I generally like what they did with his character, even if it is a shame that he doesn’t grow much in NEO. More importantly, though, his journey in the first game isn’t negated and he ultimately gets a happy ending.
Why Neku’s Strong Character Development is Meaningful
I really love this quote by Tatsuya Kondo, the game’s director, regarding Neku’s character development:
“Neku is a character that prefers solidarity and isolates himself from the get-go, but feels a twinge of loneliness somewhere in his heart, and maybe was always longing for some kind of interaction. This story is one that depicts the growth of Neku, so we definitely focused on how to portray that development. How would Neku feel, what kinds of thoughts lie behind his actions, how will he interact with the other characters, how will he be affected by them and what do those that come in contact with him feel towards him as the game progresses? These were some of the things that we considered to create a believable story…”
It perfectly encapsulates everything I love about the character, and why his journey resonates with new and veteran players alike. Throughout both games, the amount of hurt and betrayal Neku has gone through could have caused him to easily slip back into his old habits and shut people out as a defense mechanism. It’s something that I’m sure a lot of people can relate to: after all, by letting people in, you open the door for them to hurt or betray you in some way, right?
But it’s like Mr. Hanekoma says: the world ends with him. Whether Neku lets people in and trusts them or keeps people at arm’s length, it’s ultimately his choice. So he takes Mr. H’s words to heart and expands his horizons, completely changing his worldview for the better. Because even if some people might hurt you, not everyone will, and what you’ll gain is far more valuable than what you might lose. Neku is able to recognize the value of the friendship and trust he gains from others by putting himself out there and being open, allowing him to become a true friend and confidant.
I have yet to play another game with character development as thoughtful and caring as The World Ends With You, and the development team’s attention to detail shines in Neku’s character arc. Writing an organic and natural arc for the players to experience alongside the character is no easy feat, but the writing team was so precise at each step of the way that it feels easy. It’s so well done.
It’s a shame that while NEO The World Ends With You sports shinier graphics, an overhauled combat system, and excellent voice acting, I didn’t resonate with the new characters in nearly the same way as its predecessor. But I think that’s a testament to how good Neku’s arc is: when your competition is a beloved and personal journey that people of all ages and backgrounds can identify with in some way, it’s inevitable that the new characters won’t be able to compete.
When I turned on The World Ends With You for the first time eleven years ago, I had no idea the level of detail would be given to Neku’s character development throughout the game. But I’m beyond glad for it, and it’s because of the nuanced and fantastic writing that Neku Sakuraba has risen the ranks as my favorite JRPG protagonist.
Thank you for reading! Does Neku’s character arc resonate with you? Who is your favorite JRPG protagonist
(and why is it Neku)? Let us know in the comments!